by Pastor Cherie Dearth
We are continuing in our journey through the first part of 1 Corinthians, focusing on the Wisdom of God. A quick reminder of where we are. Paul is writing a letter to a church he founded several years prior. A letter that cost him at least $2500 to send. They had sent him a list of questions, but word had also gotten to him that factions had developed within the church, separating and dividing the people there. In short, rather than coming together as equals and lifting each other up in community, they were setting up new hierarchies that mimicked the Greco-Roman culture that they supposedly left behind. They were forgetting the big truths of what they learned and were overly focused on the mechanics of their new life.
It’s February now. How many of you made New Year’s resolutions? How are you doing on them? How many of you have ever made New Year’s resolutions? Most of the time folks have fizzled out on their resolutions by the beginning of February. I won’t ask if you’ve have really dropped them. Of course, there are types of resolutions that you can make that are more likely to be successful, and if you can keep going for six weeks, it’s likely to become a habit (or you will succeed in breaking a bad habit). But normally, we fall back into our old patterns. We’re tired. We’re strapped for time. We may find it too difficult. We stop focusing on it because some new crisis has come up, and we drift, drift back into our old life, our old patterns, the comfortable way of doing things.
This is what I think of when I think of the Corinthians. They were trying so hard. They were so excited about the things they learned. They were so excited about this new way of life, the spiritual gifts they had that enabled them to do things they never considered before. They were learning things about God. They were focused on those things so much that they lost the basics. They drifted into their old ways of doing thing, even using the organization of their old life in this new community.
That is one of the very helpful parts of being in Christian community these days. Some people say, “I believe in God. I can read the Bible by myself. Why do I need church?” That is true to a certain extent. While there is a social aspect to it, the church is not a club, and of course, we are all on this journey together. None of us have it all together, have it all figured out. We are all learners. We are all seekers.
But … there is safety in numbers. I saw something long ago, and I don’t remember who said it. An isolated sheep is open to the attack of the Predator, at risk of being lost and dying of starvation. Together, we can encourage each other, recognize when one of us might be going astray. We can help each other in a crisis. We are stronger together.
If that is true, why didn’t it seem to be working for the Corinthians? The short answer is that they were all new together. They all came from the same culture, and they were all drifting in the same direction together. It was hard for them to recognize, even if the different groups prioritized differing areas.
So, here we have Paul trying to jolt them back, to get them to remember where they were when he left them. He will use whatever kind of rhetorical technique he has to in order to get them to realize how far they’ve drifted, including humor and flattery.
Part of what he does in today’s Scripture passage is remind them where they started, remind them of whom and what is responsible for this new life they enjoy.
Our passage this week is the 2nd Chapter of 1 Corinthians, but I’m going to start a few verses back at 1:27 to remind us where we left off a couple of weeks ago and to set the stage.
1 Corinthians 1:27-2:16 NIV
1:27 But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. 28 God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, 29 so that no one may boast before him. 30 It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. 31 Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.”
2:1 And so it was with me, brothers and sisters. When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. 2 For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. 3 I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. 4 My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, 5 so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.
6 We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. 7 No, we declare God’s wisdom, a mystery that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. 8 None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. 9 However, as it is written:
“No eye has seen,
no ear has heard,
no mind has conceived
what God has prepared for those who love him”—
10 these are the things God has revealed to us by his Spirit.
The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God. 11 For who knows a person’s thoughts except their own spirit within them? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. 12 What we have received is not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may understand what God has freely given us. 13 This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual realities with Spirit-taught words. 14 The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit. 15 The person with the Spirit makes judgments about all things, but such a person is not subject to merely human judgments,
16 “For who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?”
But we have the mind of Christ.
One of the things that Paul is trying to get the Corinthians to do in their church community is to live the new life, the new existence, that was made possible by the death and resurrection of Jesus. That is one of the things that he is talking about when he said that he knew nothing when he was with them but Jesus Christ crucified. (1 Cor 2:2) He looks at all things through the lens of Jesus. He interprets everything in Scripture, every relationship, everything that happens in life and death based on this particular event.
While he says the word “crucified” here, there is no meaning to it for Paul except partnered with resurrection. He goes into it in depth in Chapter 15 of this letter, as some of the people were doubting the resurrection. Speaking of wisdom and folly, he tells them that their faith is the height of folly if it does not include the resurrection. In verse 14 he says, “If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.” He goes on in verse 17, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins.” So, when you hear Paul talking about the crucifixion, know that he is also talking about the resurrection, the new life. It is the resurrection that proves that Christ had the ability to die for our sins.
But, that is also the point where the existence of the universe changed forever, this lens through which Paul views everything in the world and beyond. Christ’s resurrection divides history into two sections, the present age and the age to come. The present age is when we have pain, despair, sin, war, and death. It is the age we are living in now. The age to come is when God will preside over all, and there will an end to suffering and all of the forces that oppose the goodness of God will have been defeated. Revelation talks about it. “‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Rev 21:4) What Paul wants to teach the Corinthians (and us) is that the age to come was launched through Jesus. Even though we still have to live in the present age, we get to act and show the world glimpses of what the age to come will look like.
That is the reason that the rulers of “this age” don’t understand the Wisdom of God. (1 Cor 2:8) How could they? They are looking at it through human wisdom in the present age. Paul is talking about the actual political rulers that put Jesus to death. We had the power of the Roman Empire through its representative, Pontius Pilate, and the power of the religious authority of Judaism, controlled by the chief priests and coordinated with the politically recognized “king of the Jews,” Herod Antipas (Herod the Great’s son). They all worked together on this action. In other words, as said by Professor George Caird, “The highest religion and the best government that the world had ever seen got together to execute the Lord of glory.” (N.T. Wright, 25) It sure seemed like a good idea at the time, but was it really the wisest course of action.
Unfortunately, it is still going on. The Bible is clear that God wants humans to be ruled and protected by suitable governments, but governments are run by people. In that adage that power corrupts, those people have the ability to make mistakes, to become arrogant, to follow human wisdom instead of the Wisdom of God. Through it all, it is our job to continue to live as members of the age to come, to be the example, to continue to love our neighbor, to continue to love each other though the world tells us it is folly. It is not. You may ask how it is possible. Just like when the disciples asked who could be saved. Jesus replied, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” (Mt 19:26) This could sound like more folly, more foolishness, except for one thing, we have been given the Spirit of God to teach us, to guide us, to help us understand the Wisdom of God.
As Paul says, who teaches us about “the things God has prepared for those who love him”? “These things are revealed to us by [God’s] Spirit … This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual realities with Spirit taught words.” (1 Cor 2:9b-10a, 13)
There was one question that came to mind almost as soon as I read this passage. If the Spirit teaches us, why don’t we all instantly know everything? Some of us may wonder, “If I don’t understand everything, does it mean that I don’t have the Spirit, that I’m not saved, that I don’t have salvation?” We can know from this letter that Paul writes to the Corinthians (or the letters to any of the churches that appear in the New Testament) that the answer is no. Otherwise, neither Paul nor any of the other apostles would have needed to write any of these letters. There are two things that we need to keep in mind.
One is that God is relational. We can think of God as distant and separate from our day to day lives, but nothing could be further from the truth. God is in the thick of things with us every day. Just because we don’t recognize it doesn’t mean God’s not there. We have to be open to perceive God’s presence, and often we are so distracted by all the other things going on in our lives we forget that God’s Spirit is with us all the time.
We can see it right from the beginning in Genesis with Adam and Eve in the garden. After the incident with the snake and the apple, God was walking in the garden looking for them, wanted to spend time with them. (Gen 3:8-9)
Of course, we see it most distinctly through Jesus. He did not stand on the roof of the Temple in Jerusalem and make his pronouncements to the world or even Judea. He chose a few people, twelve actually though more would follow and learn. However, with these twelve, Jesus developed a special relationship. He taught them things that he did not share with the crowds. He taught them personally. Then, he had an inner circle of three, Peter, James, and John with whom he shared extra special things. Jesus talked with all these disciples, spent every day with them for 2-3 years.
The pattern was created. They would continue and pass along the things that Jesus said personally, teaching person-to-person, and really that’s the way we still do it today. We have our flocks of varying sizes, but even the bigger flocks have small groups that learn from each other, guided by the Spirit.
So, one of the reasons why we don’t know everything instantly is that God wants us to acquire this knowledge in a relational way. It may not seem very efficient, but when it is done well, it is uplifting, meaningful, and teaches us to love and care for each other.
There is another reason that we do not have instant absolute knowledge about the ways and wisdom of God. Through the Spirit, we may have access to God’s mind, but our minds do not have the capacity to take it all in immediately.
One of the things that the Spirit does is transform us from the inside out. It is called sanctification. We are made more and more holy. This is what Paul means by “mature” when he says, “We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature.” (1 Cor 2:6)
I think of math class. I had to be able to add before I could multiply. I had to do algebra before I could solve the answers in geometry. I had to learn trigonometry before I could contemplate calculus. I don’t even know if I would understand one quarter of that now, but I do know that there was no way that I could comprehend calculus if I didn’t understand the fundamentals of simple math. It wouldn’t matter how great the instructor or the textbook was. My brain would not have had the capacity to accept the concepts. As we mature, as we grow in knowledge through the Spirit, we become better able to understand the Wisdom of God.
Are any of you familiar with the book Jonathan Living Seagull by Richard Bach? It was published in the early 1970s. It’s a short little book of 127 pages, and many of those pages are pictures of seagulls. I’m not sure that the book has a strictly Christian message, but just as I found Star Trek, which was created by an atheist, help me to better understand the nature of God, we can learn through Jonathan Living Seagull.
Jonathan was a seagull, as surprising as that may be. He was not just any seagull. He was extraordinary. While all the other gulls of his flock were screeching and squabbling over food, all he was interested in was learning to fly. He practiced day and night. His parents were worried that he wasn’t getting enough food, but he continued. He flew faster, did intricate maneuvers that seagulls weren’t supposed to be able to do. The flock’s motto was that gulls fly to eat. Anything beyond that was suspect.
Then, one night, it happened. Jonathan landed on the beach having mastered a new exciting technique, but gulls don’t fly at night. He was brought before the council. He was banished. He was a bad influence. He had “violated the dignity” of the flock. (Richard Bach, 39).
They didn’t understand, but banishment didn’t stop him. He kept practicing, learning new things, then one day he found himself on a new spiritual plain. He was surrounded by gulls that wanted to learn more and more about flying. They did not merely fly to eat. They flew to live. He had new teachers that taught him amazing things that he hadn’t even imagined before. What happened to him is what happens to most learners. They finally learn that the more they learn, the more there is to learn.
Jonathan reaches a point where he is teaching the new comers to this higher spiritual plain, but he feels the pull to go back, to teach gulls from his old flock the freedom of flying. How much faster could they learn if he were there to guide them? They didn’t have to do it all on their own like he did when he was back there. He could help them, and that’s exactly what he did.
It is about relationships. It is about progression, not necessarily understanding it all at once, but as we are able to absorb it. It is about having a guide. Our guide is the Holy Spirit. That’s the only way that we can navigate the present age with all its pitfalls, traps, and snares, while knowing that we are part of the age to come where there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female. We all come equal before the Lord. (Gal 3:28) We are called to be examples, to live out of the age to come where it is on earth as it is in heaven. (Mt 6:10) We do indeed need to be the change we want to see. It is not meant to merely be some religious experience that has no application in the world where we find ourselves. It is how we are called to live every day of our lives.
Bach, Richard. Jonathan Living Seagull. New York: Avon Books, 1973.
Wright, N.T. Paul for Everyone: 1 Corinthians. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004.